Mourners gathered Nov. 22 at the Freehold Jewish Center to share their sense of loss after the death of their teacher and friend, Cantor Alan Smolen, who died Oct. 22 at age 46.
Smolen, of Englishtown, had served less than three months at Congregation Agudath Achim at the Freehold Jewish Center.
In a poignant service filled with some of Smolen’s favorite selections of liturgical songs, nearly 150 people gathered to say farewell to a man they credited for bringing holiness to their lives through his music. Among the family members in attendance were his wife, Marla Topp, and his sister, Renee Roth of Chicago. Also at the service were his former seminary roommates, his colleagues from the Cantors Assembly Ensemble, and members of Congregation Beth Judah in Ventnor, where Smolen had served as cantor since 2006 before taking the position in Freehold.
In a speech during the service, Rabbi Aaron Gaber of Beth Judah described his most powerful image of Smolen, performing “Hineni” on the High Holy Days.
“He would proceed from the back of the sanctuary. With each step, his emotion and strength of his voice would grow. It was as if we could grab onto the corner of his kittel and ascend to heaven with him as our prayer leader,” Gaber said. “Alan inspired people to find their way toward prayer, and toward their faith. The deeds of his life have left a strong imprint on us.”
Jeffrey Malkin of Freehold, a temple and choir member, spoke to NJJN about Smolen’s approach to the liturgy.
“Normally a cantor is hired right before the High Holy Days and immediately starts working with the chorus to practice singing. With Cantor Smolen, it was very different. He spent most of the time teaching us and imparting knowledge about the music, rather than actually singing. He wanted us to learn it and understand it rather than just sing it,” said Malkin, his eyes filling with tears as he spoke. “It is such a sense of loss for us.”
His dream fulfilled
A native of Chicago, Smolen became a Torah chanter at age 11. Long active in the Conservative movement’s Cantors Assembly, Smolen served as a member of its executive council. He received bachelor’s degrees in Jewish history and liturgy through a joint program of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and Columbia University, and a master’s degree from the seminary.
Three of Smolen’s former college roommates from the seminary gathered after the service to reminisce about the man they met when they were all 18 years old. Avram Glassoff of Toms River, Ivan Gilbert of Flemington, and Matt Bonus of Piscataway had been planning to surprise Smolen by appearing at services one Friday night at the Freehold Jewish Center. Instead, their reunion at the memorial service was a somber one.
“When I first met Alan, he said he wanted to be a rabbi. Then I heard him sing and was blown away by his voice. I told him he had the voice of a cantor,” Glassoff said.
A number of Smolen’s b’nei mitzva students from Freehold Jewish Center attended the memorial. Elissa Masin, 12, of Howell will become bat mitzva in April.
“He and I shared the same Torah portion, Metzora,” she said. “He was a really good teacher. I hope that when I go up to the bima, I will make him proud.”
Smolen and his wife met in 1980 at a USY Shabbaton. Over the course of their 30-year relationship, the couple wrote each other hundreds of letters, which Marla Topp said she now regards as her most treasured possessions. At the memorial, Topp asked longtime friend Andrea Zakheim-Poetsch, a member of Beth Judah’s Friday Night Alive Assembly, to read a letter Topp wrote to her husband after his death.
“Dear Alan, it is with great sadness and a heavy heart that I write this last letter to you. About half-way through rabbinical school, you realized what you really wanted to do was be a hazan, and you fulfilled that dream,” Topp wrote. “I will miss our Friday night Shabbat dinners together and afterward watching you practice your Torah reading. You were a truly gifted Torah reader, and I know how much it meant to you. We often ended our letters to each other with ‘love forever.’ Forever was not supposed to be this soon. Rest in peace, my love. Love forever, Marla.”
Freehold Jewish Center’s Rabbi Kenneth Greene described Smolen as a man of principles who demanded high standards from his students and colleagues and of himself. The rabbi also referred obliquely to the struggles that may have led Smolen to take his own life.
“He taught countless others by deed, instruction, and example. He fought a disease of depression, which, alas, resulted in his losing a valiant fight,” Greene said during the service. “We pray his soul is embraced as he joins the minyan above. May God’s voice whisper that Alan is safe and at peace.”